In December 1903, at age eighty-four, Archbishop William Henry Elder was nearing the end of a noteworthy career when he sat for Thomas Eakins, who had traveled to Cincinnati to paint this portrait. While he was bishop in Natchez, Mississippi, the humanitarian Elder had risked his position and even his life to aid the poor.
Although Eakins was an atheist, he frequented the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside Philadelphia as he esteemed the intellect and character of the priests there. Eakins painted more than a dozen clerical portraits, most presented to his sitters as gifts. This painting is unusual in that it was commissioned by the Cincinnati cleric Henry Moeller on the recommendation of a colleague at the Pennsylvania seminary.
Eakins was Philadelphia’s best-known and most controversial painter. In 1886 he lost his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for posing a nude male model before a female class, yet despite this blow, his work did not decline. He painted some of his most moving portraits after 1900.
Elder appears here as an imposing character. At the same time, however, the portrait sensitively hints at fragility and isolation. The critic Charles Caffinn deemed it “quite extraordinary in its cold, deliberate analysis of a human personality. Witness, for example, the wonderful expression of character in the hands!” The exhibition jury of the Pennsylvania Academy awarded the portrait the Temple Gold Medal; Eakins promptly had it melted down.